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How Josiah Wedgwood’s Frog Service depicted Britain in chinaware

Commissioned by Catherine the Great, this was both an extraordinary example of Georgian soft power and a pictorial record of 18th-century England.

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In 1773, the order came through for the creation of one of the greatest landscape schemes of the 18th century. It was not for paintings, however, but for crockery. When Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, built a neo-gothic palace between St Petersburg and her summer residence at Tsarskoe Selo, she needed it fitting out, and so commissioned Josiah Wedgwood to make her a dinner and dessert service for 50 people. The “Imperial Russian Service” comprised nearly 1,000 pieces and each element was to feature a hand-painted illustration of the buildings and countryside of Britain – antiquities, castles, abbeys, river views, standing stones, picturesque landscapes, bridges and all. The project, as Wedgwood wrote to his partner Thomas Bentley, was “the noblest plan ever yet laid down or undertaken by any manufacturer in Great Britain”. 

Catherine turned to Wedgwood because he had already made a smaller dinner service for her and because she was a confirmed Anglophile. In 1768, the British ambassador, Charles, 9th Baron Cathcart, observed that: “Russia is now, by the Empress’s firm determined and declared opinions, and will be more so by all her institutions, decidedly English.” French may have been the language of the European elite but Britain provided the example of a well-governed realm where buildings, legislation, people and history combined harmoniously. The new Wedgwood service would be an inexhaustible illustration of her admired realm.

Catherine’s palace was built by a marsh known as Kekerekeksine, onomatopoeically named after the sound of the myriad local frogs, and was named La Grenouillère after those same amphibians. Consequently, as well as a British view, each piece of Wedgwood’s service included a painting of a small green frog (initially there was to be a child too, but the idea was dropped): the scheme is now known as the Frog Service. Apart from a few samples and trial pieces the bulk of the service, 770 pieces, is kept in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, so it is mostly Russians who get to see this extraordinary example of Georgian soft power and its pictorial record of 18th-century Britain.

[See also: The mysterious and unsettling pictures of Paula Rego]

The service was made at Wedgwood and Bentley’s Etruria factory in Staffordshire using lead-glazed earthenware, rather than the more expensive porcelain, and then sent to the firm’s decorating studios in Little Cheyne Row, Chelsea, to be painted. If earthenware was cheap, the painting wasn’t. A team of 33 artisans, men and women, was employed on the service, some specialising in the border decorations, others on the views. Under Bentley’s direction, they produced 1,244 scenes (a number of spare pieces were included in case of breakages), painted in brown and black on a cream background on 952 pieces. 

Wedgwood was alive to both the prestige of “this very superb commission” for “My Great Patroness in the North” but also the difficulties and risks. “Suppose the Empress should die when the service is nearly completed… it will be a very expensive business,” wrote a fretful Wedgwood. And since “all the gardens in England will scarcely furnish subjects sufficient for this set”, how were they to find enough views without suffering the time and expense of sending their artists to every corner of the country?

In the end, Wedgwood and Bentley largely used existing pictures for their illustrations, combing topographical book engravings (the main source being Samuel and Nathaniel Buck’s Antiquities, 1726-42). They supplemented them with views of estates borrowed from the landowners – who were honoured to be part of such a glamorous scheme and who would sometimes ­commission their own views especially for the project – and, where no pictures were to be had, having them drawn, with many using a camera obscura for accuracy.

[See also: Joaquin Mir’s colourful Spanish landscapes]

Before the service left for Russia, the company fitted out five rooms in its London showroom in Greek Street, with the pieces set up as if for a meal, and an invitation-only guest list was drawn up to view them, including many of the owners of the properties featured. Finally, the service was packed into 22 crates, a catalogue with details of each view was compiled and included, and the whole lot was sent off to Russia in the autumn of 1774. 

Also sent was the company’s bill for £2,290 12s 4d (approximately £200,000 today). The cost of manufacturing the plates, serving dishes, tureens, bowls, sauce-boats, ice-cream dishes and bottle and glass holders amounted to just £51 of that total, the decoration accounting for the bulk of the rest. Throughout it all, Wedgwood and Bentley had to battle Catherine’s agent, Alexander Baxter, who wanted everything done on the cheap: “If his mistress heard him she would rap his knuckles,” noted Wedgwood. In the end, the price agreed on was “cheap beyond comparison”. If Wedgwood’s profit was negligible the Frog Service was nevertheless an ­advertising coup.

What Catherine got for her money was an unprecedented overview of Great Britain. Here were great houses such as Harewood and Castle Howard, fashionable parkland as at Blenheim Palace and Stowe, the ruined abbeys at Tintern and Kirkstall, castles such as Harlech and Bodiam, parish churches, Ullswater and Fingal’s Cave, Stonehenge and the Roman ruins of Silchester, and innumerable others, all in their settings. But there were modern industrial views too, such as the Bridgewater canal, the paper mills at Rickmansworth and Plymouth docks.

However jaded the imperial appetite might have been, Catherine, in distant Muscovy, would have polished off her meal simply to see which new British scene was waiting for her underneath her fricassees and syllabubs.

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 21 July 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century